Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Wild Card Drama

By Andrew Jones

The National League playoff field is all but set. While there will obviously be an interesting end of September for the National League Central between the Pittsburgh Pirates, St. Louis Cardinals, and Cincinnati Reds as to who will win the division and who will be forced to play each other in the one game wild card matchup, the National League has a fraction of the excitement contained within the American League as we enter the final two weeks of the 2013 season.

The Boston Red Sox, Detroit Tigers, and Oakland Athletics have their divisions secured. We could not have said that about Oakland last week, but a road trip sweep of the Texas Rangers has the A's looking in a pretty good place.

Each division has at least one representative in position to vie for the two wild card spots. As of Monday, the Tampa Bay Rays out of the American League East have a slight edge over the New York Yankees and Baltimore Orioles. But the final four series for the Rays are very difficult. They have an eight-game home stand against the Rangers — who are in serious need of a late season turnaround — and the Orioles.

That home stand is followed up by a six-game road trip into Yankee Stadium and the building formerly known as SkyDome. Three of the last four series for the Rays are against teams that must win and their final series is against a division rival who would love to play the role of spoiler. It's a tough road for the Rays. I predict in the 14 games that remain on their schedule, they'll go 7-7.

As of Monday morning the Orioles were 2.5 games behind the Rays. If it is possible to have a tougher schedule than the Rays, the Orioles would contend for such an honor as they have to face the best team in baseball — the Boston Red Sox six times in their last 13 games. Including that series at Tampa Bay and three-game series at home vs. the Blue Jays, the Orioles have a tough road as well. I predict they'll go 6-7, which won't be enough to surpass the Rays.

The New York Yankees (as of Monday morning) were three games behind the Rays and half a game behind the Orioles. The Yankees on the other hand have a relatively easy schedule for the end of the season. They play at Toronto for three games, and at home vs. the Rays for three games, but their other matchups look to be pretty easy, they are at home vs. the San Francisco Giants and at the Houston Astros for three games. In those 12 games, I predict they'll go 8-4, which won't be enough to push them past the Rays, but it will get them close.

Outside the American League East, we have some real interesting contenders. The Cleveland Indians are looking to make the playoffs for the first time since 2007, which was also the last time they had a winning season. The Indians are currently half a game behind the Rays and Rangers for the wild card spots. Their final two weeks are light compared to the teams in the American League East. They have to play at a tough Kansas City team who is also alive and vying for a wild card spot, then at home vs. the Astros and the White Sox, then at Minnesota to end out the season. I predict they go 9-4 in that span, putting them ahead of the Rays and keeping them ahead of the Yankees and Orioles.

Kansas City has an outside chance to make it, as well. They are 3.5 games behind the Rays and Rangers, but their schedule might push them pretty close to the leaders. A home stand against the aforementioned Indians and then the struggling Rangers is followed by a road trip to Seattle to take on the Mariners and Chicago to take on the floundering White Sox. I predict they also go 9-4 in their last two weeks, which would surpass the Orioles and tie them with the Yankees, but leave them just behind the Rays and Indians.

And finally, out to the American League West where the Texas Rangers had lost six straight as of Monday and in the course of one week went from contending for the American League West Division title to in danger of losing their playoff spot altogether.

The Rangers start with difficulties this week, but end on an easier week in their final week of the regular season. They are at Tampa Bay and at Kansas City — both dangerous places to play this time of year. Then they are at home to finish the season against the Astros and the Los Angeles Angels. I predict they go 7-7 to end the season, which will put them in an awkward position (if my other predictions are correct) where they will be tied with Tampa Bay for the fifth and final wild card spot.

This would be decided by a one-game playoff, most likely in Texas (assuming Texas and Tampa split the series this week). Imagine that scenario. Play an elimination game. Then go play another one. Then start a playoff series. The team that comes out of that scenario will either be riding high on adrenaline or crash and burn in their first playoff series. It could be a blessing. It could be a big, fat curse.

What's interesting is that the American League wild card race is so close that we could see a number of scenarios play out that would be somewhat complicated.

Let's say that the Rays, Indians, and Rangers all end the season with the exact same record, making three teams tied for two wild card positions. Determined by head-to-head play, the teams are then ranked 1-3. The upcoming Rays vs. Rangers series makes it difficult to determine, but it would seem to me that the Indians would be 1, then 2 would be Texas, and then Tampa would be 3. In this hypothetical situation, Texas would travel to Cleveland and the winner would earn wild card spot 1, with home field advantage in the actual wild card round. Then the loser of that game would travel to Tampa Bay and the winner of that game would travel to play the winner of the first game.

I don't know of a better solution, but it seems to me this system is flawed. Texas, as team two, has two chances to win, but both on the road, even though they would likely have the tiebreaker over the Rays. The Rays only get one opportunity, which I disagree with. If Cleveland beats Texas at home and Texas beats the Rays on the road, why don't the Rays get a shot at Cleveland? The answer is obviously because this pattern of round robin victory splits could go on forever, but I'm not entirely sure the current situation is the best solution.

Whatever the case may be, September baseball is bound to be exciting, especially in the American League. Look for the Indians and the Rays to come out on top, but the Rangers at Rays four-game series this week should tell us most of what we need to know.

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